Tensions Rise Amidst UN Visit To Rohingya Refugee Camps

On the 14th of August 2022, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, arrived at Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Bachelet visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, namely Kutupalong Refugee Camp, near the Myanmar border. This comes after the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the United Nations Human Rights chief that the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees “have to be taken back” to Myanmar.

Since 2017, approximately 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar, in which they were facing persecution by the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar military. A “cleansing operation” was launched, in which an estimated 10,000 Rohingya were killed, and many were subject to rape and forced labour. The largely Muslim Rohingya were denied citizenship in Myanmar, thus they are not protected by the civic laws of the country.

There are currently 909,000 people trapped in Bangladesh; the majority being women and children. Approximately 40% of these people are less than twelve years old. Conditions in refugee camps such as Kutupalong are bereft of comfort or security. Rohingya are confined to bamboo and tarpaulin shacks. They do not have access to work, education, and experience poor sanitation. Two Rohingya community leaders were killed earlier this month in Kutupalong by an armed group that have previously been accused of murdering political opponents.

Bangladesh has previously sought help from China in the repatriation of the Rohingya, in which they brokered an agreement in November 2017 with Myanmar endeavouring to send the Rohingya back. Subsequently, China and Bangladesh grow frustrated with Myanmar’s apparent inaction about repatriation. Both the United Nations and Bangladesh authorities have attempted to repatriate Rohingya, however the refugees are not willing to go back to Myanmar under its current conditions and have urged for UN assistance to create a safe environment in Myanmar for the Rohingya.

What most parties seem to have in common is the desire for the Rohingya to go home to Myanmar – however different the motivations. On 19th of June 2022, tens of thousands of Rohingya staged demonstrations, marches, and rallies to demand repatriation – despite a ban on rallies in August of 2019 that consisted of 100,000 protestors. The “Bari Cholo” (Let’s Go Home) campaign has been at the forefront of the 23 Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

Bachelet expresses how “repatriation must always be conducted in a voluntary and dignified manner”, however the “increasing anti-Rohingya rhetoric” of Bangladesh is concerning. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regina De La Portilla explains how most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh want to return, “but they also said that they do not feel it would be safe to do so yet”.

Organisations such as Fortify Rights, Arakan Project and Human Rights Watch have all appealed to international leaders to aid the Rohingya, and while the UN condemns the poor treatment of Rohingya in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, they have yet to impose sanctions on Myanmar. This is despite the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres describing the Rohingya as “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world”.

What is quite devastating as an onlooker is how Rohingya have fled a country that actively persecutes them, to find themselves seeking refuge in a country that meets them with violence and disdain. It is hard to ignore the feeling that perhaps the Rohingya have been forgotten about, particularly by the west, and particularly with the escalating situations in both Afghanistan and Ukraine. The treatment and anti-Rohingya rhetoric glosses over the fact that almost a million people have been displaced and actively persecuted in their country, and the situation has not improved in the five years it has taken place, and the emphasis is on the pressure hosting refugees is having on Bangladesh and not the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya.

Kutupalong is the largest refugee camp in the world, and it is clearly a strain on Bangladesh; cooperation from surrounding states is also an option. Additionally, remembering how Rohingya deserve to go home to a safe environment, and how desperately they want to do so, is vital to further efforts.